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When designing a typeface, how should I design the letter ß?

Looking at existing typefaces there seems to be a some variations of how the character is designed.

enter image description here

It seems that the letter (called an Eszett or Sharp S in English) originated as a ligature for ſs (a long s - not an f).

Some examples in different fonts with related characters:

enter image description here

There are at least 2 distinct ways of creating the character - One being based of a lower case f (or ſ) & lower case s, the other being based on a lower case f (or ſ) & 3. Some designs extend to the cap-height and some extend to the ascender height. Most do not have a descender but some do.

As someone who doesn't speak any languages that use the eszett/sharp s, I am unfamiliar with it's usage or form. I therefor don't know if any of these variations in design are incorrect.


An article on Typography.Guru by a German typographer explains how to design the capital ẞ, but doesn't give any information on the lowercase ß I am interested in.

UPDATE: Since this question was posted, an article by the same author as the previous article has been published, detailing the design of the lowercase ß. The article can be found here:

  • As to your last point, it's the other way around I think: "Sharp s is unique among the letters of the Latin alphabet in that it has no traditional upper case form, capital ẞ is just a modified glyph for ß. This is because it never occurs word-initially in German text, and traditional German printing (which used blackletter) never used all-caps. When using all-caps, traditional spelling rules required the replacement of ß with SS." (from Wikipedia) – PieBie Mar 8 '16 at 13:51
  • @PieBie: Designing and using a capital ß is gaining popularity recently (more). – Wrzlprmft Mar 8 '16 at 16:19
  • Yeah, I'm aware. But I still think you should start at a lowercase, and design the uppercase from there, not the other way around... – PieBie Mar 8 '16 at 16:24
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    Even before you asked this question (but mentioned this issue in another one), I suggested making an article about this to the guy who wrote the article on the capital eszett, and here it is. – Wrzlprmft Mar 16 '16 at 13:53
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From the article The Multifaceted Design of the Lowercase Sharp S (ß):

Today there are two standard models for the design of the ß character. [...] They are recommendable for most of today’s typefaces.

1. The ſs Ligature Design

Using a ligature of ſ and s is the usual choice for humanist typefaces and is used by both serif and sans serif typefaces.

enter image description here

Designing the ß in this way should be simple, since it is just an ſ and s connected with an arc. The similarity between the ſ and f characters mean that typefaces without an ſ design often use an f without the crossbar.

The connection between the ſ and s is important.

The connection however is mandatory today. While an unconnected design is a historic variation, it won’t be accepted by today’s readers.

A continuous or abrupt connection

The connection between the ſ and s shapes usually connect as one continuous curve, but there are typefaces which emphasize the different characters clearly by making a distinct change of direction.

enter image description here

German readers without a background in typography see the ß as one character. Stressing ſ and s as individual parts of that design is neither expected nor necessarily helpful. Just as a W exposing its origin as ligature of two V is a possibility, but not necessarily helpful.


2. The Sulzbach Design

enter image description here

This design is used more with geometric or constructed typefaces as the two arcs work better than the flowing form of the connected ſs ligature. The connection of the two arcs shouldn't connect with the stem and the bottom should not be closed, as not to confuse the design with a capital B.

Around 1900 an official German orthography was established and a committee of type founders and printers met to define rules regarding the design and use of German characters like ß, ö, ä, ü [...] The design proposal that was chosen had similarities with an unusual letter used in the 17th century by the printer Abraham Lichtenthaler in the city of Sulzbach and is therefore now known as “Sulzbacher Form” (Sulzbach design).


Other Considerations

The half-crossbar on the ſ is ok but isn't needed

The ſ sometimes has a horizontal stroke on the left side. If so the ß should have this stroke as well. This isn't however required in the case of the ſ or ß—or even desirable.

In my opinion, it only supports the confusion of ſ and f and therefore the horizontal stroke might also be omitted for ſ and ß in modern typefaces. Either way, ſ and ß should always follow the same principles.

The descender

The ſ character will normally have a descender in italic or script designs and the ß should follow this design. This is also standard for german handwriting.

enter image description here enter image description here

Blackletter ß

Another design sometimes seen is derived from a blackletter ß. This is not a standard design however and may not be desired.

enter image description here


All images and references from The Multifaceted Design of the Lowercase Sharp S (ß) by Ralf Herrmann

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originated as a ligature for ſs

No, but that doesn’t really need to concern you, since the history and the expected design are different things.

The two different typical designs you show are both valid today. The version in the first line is typical for more geometric/constructed typefaces, the version in the second line is typical for so-called “humanistic” typefaces.

  • Could you explain why that isn't true? Everything I have read says the origins are as a ſs or ſz ligature. Since I have no idea of the usage or how the character should look I would say it is important. – Cai Mar 12 '16 at 10:05
  • The Wikipedia article correctly states “ There remains no clear clarification of the origin of the letter ß.” But that isn’t relevant for the design. It only matters what is typical and therefore expected and understood. Just as with words. It doesn’t matter how a word developed 500 years ago and if it meant something completely different back then. We don’t need to know that. We use it correctly, if we use an established meaning and spelling by today’s practice. – opentype Mar 19 '16 at 9:20

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